Hillary and the High Court

The Supreme Court considers the constitutional limits of corporate electioneering.

Jake Parsley

The U.S. Supreme Court kicked off their fall term a little early last Wednesday, and the center of attention was none other than current Secretary of State and American political mainstay Hillary Rodham Clinton. Well, sort of. Clinton herself wasnâÄôt there, but the arguments centered on a political documentary about ClintonâÄôs life produced by a nonprofit corporation called Citizens United. According to the Citizens UnitedâÄôs own court filings, the film, entitled âÄúHillary: The Movie,âÄù is a biographical documentary that âÄúpresents a critical assessment of Sen. ClintonâÄôs record as a U.S. senator and as first lady in order to educate viewers about her political background.âÄù Citizens United planned to pay cable companies to broadcast the film before and during the 2008 presidential primary elections. Citizens United ran into problems when the Federal Election Commission, an independent regulatory agency that oversees the use of money in federal elections, determined that the movie was an âÄúelectioneering communicationâÄù that directly advocated ClintonâÄôs defeat, and thus could not legally be paid for out of the general treasury fund of any corporation. So Citizens United sued, arguing that the federal election laws cited by the commission violated the First Amendment, which basically states that Congress canâÄôt pass any laws that violate the âÄúfreedom of speech.âÄù Speaking very generally, Citizens United and their allies believe that federal laws limiting corporate spending on campaigns limit political speech and are therefore unconstitutional. The group is hoping to overturn existing laws so that corporate campaign donations would be treated in the same manner as donations from individuals. The election commission, on the other hand, is arguing that the laws limiting corporate funding in an election campaign are necessary to preserve a fair electoral process. Obviously, thereâÄôs a partisan aspect to this case. Citizens United is a nonprofit corporation that operates on a $12 million a year budget. According to their court filings, the group âÄúseeks to promote the traditional American values of limited government, free enterprise, strong families, national sovereignty and security.âÄù Essentially, itâÄôs a conservative action group. In addition, the film produced by the group is politically oriented. Although I havenâÄôt personally seen the film, my assumption is that it isnâÄôt a particularly flattering portrait of our current Secretary of State. Court documents mention the inclusion of commentary by conservative heavy-hitters such as Robert Novak and Ann Coulter, which leads me to believe the film might not exactly rise to the objective standards of, say, The Minnesota Daily. In addition to the film itself, there tends to be an ideological split in the campaign finance debate historically: conservatives generally tend to support less regulation, and liberal folks generally favor a heavier governmental hand. This divide has been reflected in Congress as well as in the courts; although none of this suggests that conservative politicians would benefit materially more than liberals if corporate funding laws are re-written. Advocates of regulation fear that allowing corporations to participate in the electoral process will result in a federal political marketplace where candidates will be easily bought and sold. In a Sept. 1 post on the Web site of the American Constitution Society, scholar Doug Kendall wrote that âÄúunleashing even a tiny fraction of corporate profits âÄî from just a handful of companies âÄî could overwhelm the campaign system with money that represents the narrowest interests of private, profit-driven entities.âÄù Of course, the law doesnâÄôt just affect corporate giants like Wal-Mart and Exxon; it applies to any corporate body, including nonprofits. As Justice Antonin Scalia noted in the oral arguments of the case, more than 90 percent of American corporations are very small or owned by a single person, yet the federal limits on corporate spending in campaigns still apply. Currently, any corporate electioneering is prohibited. So how scared do we need to be of corporate money used for political purposes? Are the laws prohibiting company cash necessary to prevent political corruption? Or can America live with, and possibly even benefit from, a corporate contribution to the electoral marketplace of ideas? The Supreme Court will soon decide. Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]